Sunday, February 25, 2007
  Thoughts on Beginning Theory
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, 2nd edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. 290 pages.

As someone who is very concerned with the processes, possibilities and character of interpretation, I'm naturally drawn toward literary theory. I confess, I am significantly more drawn to theory than to most of the typical objects of literary criticism. I've been a non-fiction reader for a long time, though my reading list this year seems to show signs of easing on that stance. My diet consists mainly of a large volume and variety of pure theory.

However, when it comes to literary theory in particular (the kind of theory which, along with the thought of various figures associated with contemporary philosophy and anthropology, tends to be labelled simply "Theory") I'm an outsider. This isn't necessarily a choice of mine. I'd say that there are at least two factors in this. One is simply that I'm on my own here, given that I'm not part of a community that I can learn from (at least not very easily) and I can't take a class right now. Over the years that I've been (mostly) apart from academic institutions, I've been developing ways of getting into hard subjects on my own. Often brief treatments of entire subjects can be found in relatively small volumes. I've become a collector of these types of books. I can get through them easily and get a pretty good idea about the nature and value of the concepts involved in the discipline at hand, as well as a pretty good idea about what kind of thing to pick up when I want further information. Literary theory presents a challenge here, simply because it's a subject where there's quite a lot of fundamental disagreement, particularly about ideological and interpretational issues. It's hard to be sure, when picking up an introductory level literary theory book, that you're not going to get idiosyncratic interpretations of certain branches of thought that may not prepare you for further reading.
The second thing that's held me, and many others before me, back is that literary criticism has developed several sometimes quite abstruse ways of using language and dealing with concepts. I'm coming to realize that various scientists and mathematicians have had the biggest role in the formation of my perspective, and given this background (considering the antagonism between scientists, mathematicians and the people associated with Theory) I'm simply not yet equipped to translate the writing of, say, Derrida, into anything even remotely approaching sense.
Beginning Theory seems to have been written with someone much like me in mind. That's probably the most important thing to say about it. It's structured in exactly the way that someone looking for a relatively systematic breakdown of a field would benefit from. Some introductions to literary theory try to "show" and not "tell" by adopting some of the modes and concepts of criticism in the writing of the text. One of the criticisms I can imagine this text drawing is that it isn't written in a style very befitting of those who it describes, but I think this text actually makes the subject material more accessible to outsiders by doing more "telling"than "showing".
As someone who is still something of a beginner to the field, I can't say with certainty whether the book is entirely accurate or strays away from particularly idiosyncratic perspectives. What I can say is essentially that I get a very good feeling from it. As I said before, it's clear throughout and definitely written for the benefit of people who are not already accustomed to the writing styles of say, the post-structuralists. It's definitely more about literary theory than cultural theory, though cultural theorists are certainly discussed, they're usually brought up in relation to the effect they've had on literary critics. Still, it seems to be pretty wide ranging, not focusing just on a single school, but including methods not usually written about, such as stylistics, and it comes across pretty even handed, as I wasn't able to detect a clear preference towards or bias against any particular strands.
I'm not totally new to most of the topics in the book, but in the past I've found many of them pretty confusing, for want of a good way into the study of them. Some light was shed on things that I had trouble with before, such as psychoanalytic criticism, and deconstruction. Though I'm sure these subjects suffer from simplification, now I have a good idea of how to approach them where to go when I want to learn more. One of the most important things I gained from the book was simply the ability to tell the difference between things like new historicism, cultural materialism and Marxist criticism.
I keep catching myself trying to show a great deal of caution in my enthusiasm here. I think this is because I'm naturally distrustful of books of this sort. "Theory" people, in my experience, really appreciate the irreducible complexity of things and are naturally distrustful towards simplifications, grand narratives and anything essentialising. It follows that they'd be suspicious of a book that attempts to tackle several complex fields and sum them up in a number of small pages, and this makes me suspicious for various reasons. If irreducible complexity and mistrust for essentialism are such an important part of literary theory, then why try to present the simple essentials, why not just throw students in the thick of things to show them what it's really like? The answer I'd like to give is that some of them won't gain anything that way. Some of us learn in a very global way; we have to get a very wide perspective before we can proceed to the details. This perspective may be in some ways essentializing, distorted and oversimplified but it's temporary; it's a scaffolding we can use to build a more nuanced and complex understanding. Not all "scientist types" are hostile to "Theory", or are advancing some authoritarian agenda of crushing uniformity and antagonism toward complexity. They just don't have a very good way in.
That's why I ultimately admire this book, it seems like it's a good way in to the study of literary theory for someone like me. At nearly three hundred pages, it's not an afternoon read, but it's split into pretty much self-contained sections that don't have to be read in any particular order, so it's digestible. Each section also ends in a recommended reading list, which is worth the recommendation alone.


"Beginning Theory" is, as you do a nice job of explaining, a decent starting point for those outside of the humanities, or those who are not currently in school.

I think you're right in saying that some students and teachers of Theory regard its irreducible complexity as a sort of virtue. Sort of ridiculous, right? The idea that Theory is only accessible to the mentally well endowed is not only elitist but dangerous.

"Beginning Theory" does a decent job of demystifying Theory, and of giving some sort of order and coherence to a field of inquiry that is often (and appropriately) derided as being self indulgent, devoid of pedagogical value, and willfully esoteric.

I'd have liked the author to spend more time on the differences between critical theory and literary theory. These two are strongly related, but they're also different in terms of their origins, themes, and praxis.
Bear down
I feel the same way pretty much. I can understand, in certain terms, the preference for irreducible complexity. The idea is that things actually are irreducibly complex, and that historically oversimplification can be a tool to promote a political agenda. At times though, this preference actually seems to be close to a fetish, which is a bit ridiculous.
I'm a little bit more knowledgable about critical theory than I am literary, so I was fine with the concentration on the literary stuff, but you're right that it would make a fine addition, especially for a book which claims to be an introduction to cultural theory.
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